Prospering from the massive success of Netflix’s Stranger Things, our culture has been surfing on an enduring 1980s nostalgia wave. This pastiche has generated a few pleasurable homages (Turbo Kid and It) as well as a fair share of derivative stinkers (The Babysitter and Summer of 84). The latest low-budget revival Max Reload and The Nether Blasters lands in a murky middle ground, never quite innovating its well-intended approach.
Max Reload and The Nether Blasters follows Max (Tom Plumley), a confident gamer who spends his days questing and working alongside his friends Liz (Hassie Harrison) and Reggie (Joey Morgan). Their ordinary lives are flipped upside down when Max discovers a copy of a lost entry in the Nether Game series, sparking a malevolent entity that wreaks havoc on their town. Alongside the game’s storied developers Eugene (Greg Grunberg) and Bart (Joseph Reitman), the five-team up to save the world.
Where some projects have the pretensions of becoming something grand, Max Reload differs by bringing a refreshing level of self-awareness to the table. Indie directors Jeremy Tremp and Scott Conditt maximize their low-budget assets with some cheekily designed VFX work, incorporating several clever 80s throwbacks with their lo-fi style and integration of two-bit animated sequences. Their efforts admirably harken to a finite period of 80s culture where heady RPGs generated fervent word of mouth from their dedicated fanbase. Tremp and Conditt’s nostalgic adoration creates some moments of infectious glee, especially with a few well-placed celebrity performances that deliver much-needed levity (Kevin Smith and Greg Grunberg are clearly having a blast).
Max Reload is too earnest to condemn, yet this spirited effort can’t escape its lingering sense of familiarity. Conditt and Tremp jam-pack each frame with obscure references and immersive details, thoughtfully-constructed elements that can’t quite compensate for their flatlined screenplay. The story is as routine as it gets, resting on the laurels of dated cliches that are starting to show their age (the high-concept premise is thinly-constructed while the character work never renders substantive dynamics from its archetype personas). Numerous attempts at humor land with lackluster results, as several jokes come off as overwritten in their referential construction.
Even as a dedicated fan of video games storied history (still dust off my old NES from time to time), I never found myself engulfed by Max Reload’s love letter to its distinct era. The film is often noisy and fast-paced, with this frantic energy deterring any attempts to unearth a warmly nostalgic throughline from its narrative. Conditt and Tremp’s may display filmmaking ingenuity throughout, but their efforts never escape the shadow of its superior counterparts.
Max Reload and the Nether Blasters‘ good-hearted nature can’t equate to a satisfying low-rent 80s homage.
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